Lorenzo Diaz hand-picks and packs every gourd shipped from California Gourds, the mail-order business he owns with his wife Patti. Last year, the couple mailed $300,000 worth of gourds to artists, crafters and musicians in the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Canada and Puerto Rico.
"Since we have the only Web site they can actually order gourds from," Diaz said, "all of a sudden we become the experts on gourds, whether we really are or not."
This powerful niche position has enabled the San Diego County natives to lead the gourd world in any direction they desire. Their current destination: fine art in La Jolla.
Jasmin Galleries at 7863 Herschel Ave. opened in April and celebrated its grand opening with co-occupant, De Luz Protea, on May 18. Dedicated solely to fine gourd art, the gallery offers paintings, carvings, wood burnings, weaving, jewelry and musical instruments, all created from the same medium. Most of the pieces are by local artists, though it is also the only gallery in the United States to sell Chinese molded gourds and katydid houses.
Kimo Trueman, a featured artist, has created more than 600 wood burnings reflecting his Polynesian culture. No two gourds are alike. He believes the Jewel and her visitors will love the pieces.
"You got high-class people that come through there," Trueman said, "not only the ordinary, but you got people that know what they're looking for, something different, something unique, something special."
The couple opened the gallery after watching the art develop into gallery-level work at their annual gourd festival in Fallbrook, they wanted to provide gourd artists a permanent place to sell their work.
"In a sense, they didn't really have an incentive to keep at it because they didn't have an outlet," Diaz said. "They go to a show, if a piece doesn't sell, they take it back to their garage and there it sits."
Diaz explained they chose La Jolla because it hosts many other high-end galleries and is a magnetic tourist spot, a promising equation for retail success. Jasmin Galleries is a bit ahead of the gourd wave sweeping west from France and New York.
"I think this is the perfect setting, more so than New York," said Jeanne Hamilton, a Big Apple resident meandering through the gallery while on vacation.
Diaz said they plan to open four more galleries over the next three years in Laguna Beach, Maui, San Francisco and Carmel or Monterey.
Trueman is optimistic that, unlike mainstream galleries, Jasmin Galleries will succeed selling the gourd art. His work has been in three other galleries, but didn't move because the sales representatives didn't have an appreciation for Polynesian culture.
Diaz explained that most people are not familiar with the medium and so are more likely to sell a painting than a gourd.
The gourd, which grows like a pumpkin in all shapes and sizes, is the oldest utility vegetable known to mankind. Mexicans and Africans used dipper gourds and bottle gourds as spoons and water containers. In traditional Hula dances, gourds are used as musical instruments. The Chinese katydid houses served as a home alarm system: if the katydids were chirping, all was well, if they fell silent something was amiss.
More recently, the list of uses has expanded to include crafts and fine art.
"When the artists find this medium of gourds, they are just taken aback by it," Diaz said. "For some reason, they're just drawn to it that it's three dimensional. It's basically an open canvas for them. They can carve it, they can paint it, they can do whatever they want with it."